ASIA: Academics look East as region seeks talent

With the growth rate in higher education enrolments among the highest in the world, expanding universities in the Asia-Pacific region have been stepping up their search for academic talent. This year a number of Asian countries launched or scaled up their overseas talent hunts, made easier by education cutbacks in the West.

"We are in a region where higher education is growing very fast," said Zaini Ujang, Vice-chancellor of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia. Between 1970 and 2010 the growth rate in the Asia Pacific was 28%, the highest in the world, he pointed out.

"Countries like China, Singapore and Malaysia started five year ago to tap the market for overseas students and to provide higher education at a cheaper price than the US," Ujang told University World News.

But the growth in the region is not just from institutions raising their enrolments locally and from foreign students and increasing research funding, but also from new branch campuses of overseas universities, including two new partnerships planned for Singapore in the next few years, one in Malaysia, three in South Korea, and others in China including a second campus for Britain's Nottingham University slated for Shanghai.

"Western countries are interested to position themselves in the Asia-Pacific. They know that the growth market is in this region," said Ujang. "In addition, academic and research job markets are very saturated in some parts of the West."

Malaysia is encouraging internationalisation of its universities and has said that top universities must recruit around 20% of their academics from abroad.

Ujang continued: "A lot of new people from British universities have been joining us this year. Those who are already here have started to recruit their colleagues and academic staff from Britain, particularly those in the first years of their academic career who might be looking to go from being senior lecturer to professor."

China's attempts to attract talent have gained more attention this year, although the recruitment of top academics has been ongoing for several years. Official media are full of success stories of happy returning academics.

But the Medium and Long Term Talent Development Plan 2010-2020, with details emerging this year, has put that policy on a new footing with funds to attract talent from abroad.

Lin Jun, Chairman of the All-Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese, said in September: "These are the fiercest of times in the competition for talent."

He said in the official party newspaper People's Daily that around 81% of researchers in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, 54% of academics in the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and 72% of chief scientists in 863 programmes had "studied abroad and returned home to make great contributions in their fields".

In 2009, the latest year for which figures are available, China's Ministry of Education reports that 108,000 overseas academics returned to China, compared to 44,000 in 2007.

In India proposals modelled on the Chinese example for a US$500 million government fund to attract academics stars from abroad has not made much headway this year, but the country is also set on attracting talent as it sets up new central universities.

Eight new prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology opened this year, with another five to open in 2011 - and they have faced a shortage of staff. The government is trawling further afield to attract professors of Indian origin as well as top-flight foreign faculty.

"There is currently an overflow of applicants [from overseas] wanting to teach in our institutes, as employment opportunities for PhD fellows in the US and Europe are not very bright," said Surendra Prasad, Director of the Indian Institute for Technology in New Delhi.

Singapore's higher education sector is already one of the most internationalised in the region and the preferred destinations for western academics looking East. This year the appointment of Swedish Professor Bertil Andersson as the incoming president of Nanyang Technological University means that three out of four heads of Singaporean universities will be from abroad, others being from Belgium and the US.

Josephine Teo, chair of Singapore's Government Parliamentary Committee for Education said: "It is great news that we can attract all these top talents to head our schools [universities]. If we are settling for second-best foreigners because there aren't enough Singaporeans, I would be worried. But this isn't the case."

Singapore's ability to provide the conditions to attract the very best from the West, has made it more difficult for others in the region. Nonetheless the Malaysian government has been preparing to launch its 'Talent Corporation' in January 2011 to aggressively lure back academic talent.

"Previously we waited for them to get back to us, but this time we will search them out," Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said during a visit to Belgium in October. Earlier attempts by the government to attract talent have not been too successful. But Najib said: "Our policies are more open now."

Meanwhile it is not just teaching jobs as university enrolments rise, but research is also a growth area in the region.

"Some countries are offering a lot of incentives. Malaysia and Singapore are not just offering jobs to talent from other countries but also residence, research facilities, research partnerships," Ujang said.

Hong Kong announced this year that it needed to recruit at least 1,000 professors as it shifts from a three-year degree system to a four-year degree by 2012.

"Around 52% of Hong Kong academics are not from Hong Kong they are from Australia, the United Kingdom, Europe, the US, Canada. But there are also increasingly more mainland Chinese in Hong Kong," said Kevin Downing of Hong Kong's City University.

Many universities are successfully recruiting short-term staff from the West, but for top posts and permanent posts the market is highly competitive. "We have had to travel far and wide to recruit highly qualified academics to City University, and talking to my colleagues, the same seems to be true of other universities [in Hong Kong]," Downing told University World News.

In particular China is making strong efforts to attract talent. "Some top Chinese universities are beginning to attract high quality faculty in specific areas, for example medical technology. China seems to be attracting returning Chinese who have in front of them very glittering careers," said Downing.

Academics get preferential treatment for coveted city residence permits. City governments like Beijing and Shanghai offer to pay temporary luxury accommodation, tax breaks, support staff and other perks alongside the substantial research funds on tap.

However Western academics and even returning Chinese academics find the culture shock is significant, in particular the learning environment which tends to be very traditional.

This is also true for South Korea where a large proportion of newly hired professors this year have been from abroad, mostly returning Koreans. Eight foreign professors took up posts at Seoul National University this year, eight joined Yonsei University and Konkuk hired another 10 foreign professors to join 47 hired the previous year.

"Places like Hong Kong and Singapore are more 'foreigner-friendly because of the widespread use of English and way of life as well as the infrastructure and facilities," said Downing.

The previous strong trend for academics from Asia, particularly from South Korea and China, but also Singapore and Malaysia, to go West is being stemmed by stricter visa policies, and more restrictions are on the cards for next year.

"It has become difficult for Western universities to recruit internationally for this reason, but Asian countries are going the other way," Downing said. Rules are being relaxed, for example to allow postgraduate students to stay on and work in Hong Kong and Singapore.

But the hunt for talent is a competitive one. "We are not attracting top older professors, they are the most difficult to get," admitted Ujang in Malaysia. "But we are interested in attracting the top talent among the younger academics. They are more dynamic and they are the most mobile, and they may return to Europe and become the top professors there," he said, referring to the phenomenon of brain circulation where academic careers are no longer restricted to one country or region.

But with rising research spending, many Asian countries are able to attract talent by offering superior research labs compared even to some Western countries. That is really what is drawing much of the science talent to Asia, western academics acknowledge. And they see greater opportunities for them in Asia because of the region's expanding economies.

"Higher education institutions are part of the general shift East," said Downing.

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